On December 1, 2014, a group of Ertegun scholars were taken on a tour of Blenheim Palace, timed to coincide with an exhibition of works by the renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, which had been set up scattered through the rooms of the 18th-century palace. The tour started outside the gate into the Great Court, where Ertegun Director Bryan Ward-Perkins gave us a brief history of the site.
The land was given by Queen Anne to the military commander John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, upon his victory at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704. At the same time, Parliament granted Churchill a large amount of money for the construction of the palace. This took place between 1705 and 1722, amid wrangling and controversy over design and expenses between the Duchess, Sarah Churchill, and Sir John Vanbrugh, the principal architect (aided by his partner Nicholas Hawksmoor). The resulting building is one of the major examples of English Baroque.
After pausing to take in the triumphal statuary that adorns the exterior of the palace, we made our way across Vanbrugh’s Grand Bridge, which now spans Capability Brown’s lake, and up the gentle incline to the Column of Victory. This is a monument of 134 feet topped by a statue of John Churchill in the garb of a Roman general, and inscribed around the base with an account of the Duke’s exploits and the text of the Acts of Parliament that bestowed on him the Blenheim estate and the funds for the palace. It was a particularly atmospheric day on which to appreciate the setting: grey, still and practically deserted, with crows cawing loudly overhead and, somewhat incongruously, a large flock of seagulls padding around on the dewy grass.
The next and final part of our tour took us inside the palace, where we equipped ourselves with a leaflet listing the works of Ai Weiwei on show. Contrary to the expectations of some of us, what were displayed were pre-existing works by the artist, none made specifically for this site. My own impression was that a small number were effective in their new situations. The room in which Winston Churchill was born, for example, had been modified by a pair of wooden handcuffs on the bed and a picture of a face shaped out of a coat hanger on one of the walls, which created a mysterious and surprising tension. But in most cases the artworks made little impact. Some, such as the ‘Chandelier’ (2002) in the Hall, blended in so thoroughly that it was difficult to see the point of them. Others simply failed to compete with the regular displays: a heap of porcelain crabs in the Red Drawing Room was overshadowed by a remarkable portrait of the 9th Duke and his family by John Singer-Sargent (1905).
As someone with a strong interest in contemporary art, I was delighted to have the opportunity to see this exhibition, especially in view of the positive reviews it has received. But my overall feeling is that the artwork did not benefit from the relocation to Blenheim. With none of the literature that usually accompanies his exhibits, visitors are likely to leave with no understanding of Ai Weiwei’s practice, and perhaps baffled at the usual designation of him as a dissident artist.